It may be ideal to attend graduate school after you’ve become a junior expert in your field through work experience. But if you are determined to go to grad school directly from undergraduate college—and in fact, there are some fields in which this is encouraged—we will explore some tips for helping you improve your chances of acceptance.
Gain leadership through clubs and activities
Take on leadership roles in clubs and activities you are passionate about. Everything from working at your college radio station, writing for your campus paper, or serving on student government can provide great experience working on teams and collaborating. Additionally, consider opportunities off campus like volunteering with an environmental group or working at a nearby afterschool program.
Participating in on and off campus activities will also help you build your network in college. They can also provide good experiences to share during interviews for graduate school as well as your resume, statements of purpose, and cover letters. Your professors, club leaders, and peers can also be strong references for you.
Earn strong grades
Because you won’t have extensive work experience if you apply to grad school directly from college, your undergraduate grades will carry more weight in your application. Be sure to take coursework seriously and work hard to earn the best grades you can.
Carve out time to study for the GRE or other admissions test
Standardized tests for graduate school are long exams designed to assess your aptitude and ability to succeed in graduate school. Graduate study-related standardized tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Miller Analogies Test (MAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and more.
If you plan to attend grad school directly after college, you will need to take these exams as an undergraduate. You might consider taking them during the summer or winter break but it’s likely you’ll have at least some overlap studying for the exam as well as your other courses. This can be tricky to balance with your undergraduate course load so plan ahead about which semester may be best to take your exam. For more information about these exams, be sure to take a look at our article, Taking the GRE and Other Grad School Admission Tests.
Choose your classes wisely
Select your classes based not only on requirements for your bachelors degree, but also on what you’ll need to know for grad school. For example, macroeconomics classes are prerequisites for some international affairs programs. Find out what your graduate programs of interest require and make sure to work them into your semester plan.
In classes related to your graduate interests, make sure you’re also keeping an ear out for authors and schools of thought within your discipline. This can help you navigate and make informed decisions about program specialties as well as specific professors you may want to work with. If your undergraduate institution also offers graduate coursework, pursue enrolling in a graduate class if possible. It will allow you to get a feel for graduate study, clarify if the field is of interest to you and give you the chance to network with current grad students.
Cultivate relationships with your professors
Make a point of visiting your professors during office hours and not just when you have an exam or paper due. Getting to know your professors can grow into a mentoring relationship and allow them opportunities to know you and your academic interests better. Professors who know you better as a person will be more willing and able to write letters of recommendation for your grad school applications and can also offer insights into graduate programs and academia.
Visit the career center
Take advantage of resources like your school’s career center. Staff there can support you with finding internships, conducting your graduate school search, and thinking about your long term career. Your career center staff may also connect you with alumni who may be current grad students or who have graduated from your grad school programs of interest.
Take on service learning and internship opportunities
Since you won’t be accumulating job experience between college and graduate school, it’s important to make your time off from school count. Pursue internships during your summer and winter breaks as well as service learning opportunities you can do during your studies. The connections you make at your internship can be valuable resources and references down the line. Make sure to connect with your campus career center and take a look at internships posted on idealist.org to help find these opportunities.
Gain experience with on-campus jobs
Jobs like working as a research assistant for a professor, or an office assistant for your department, or in your college library or student cafe, can all offer valuable professional experience. These will become especially important in your application to grad school as examples of your ability to handle responsibilities and deadlines as well as learn and grow in a professional environment.
Attend events and talks at your college
Be sure to attend events at your college related to your field of interest. Attending talks can provide deeper insights into the field and hear from leading voices within it. If your department is hosting and you’ve made connections with your professors, you may also have the opportunity to meet or get introduced to guest or visiting lecturers and further expand your network.
Take on experiences, responsibilities, and tasks that you may not yet be good at, or that take you out of your professional comfort zone. If you study journalism, use a writing assignment to tackle a topic you are unfamiliar with. If you are an engineering student, try an anthropology or poetry class (or vice versa). You might discover something new about yourself that will help drive your next steps in a direction you hadn’t predicted. Your worldview will expand, and you will set yourself apart from other students in your field.
Set long-term goals
The best way to determine if grad school is the right immediate next step for you is to consider how it fits with your long term professional goals. Consider where you see yourself in five years as well as ten years and determine where grad school may make the most sense and fit into that plan. Make sure you also seek input on your long term plans from folks in your network like professors, staff at your campus career center and other friends and family you trust.
We hope these suggestions and ideas support you as you consider applying directly to grad school from college. As you continue your academic journey, remember your long term goals and take advantage of all the resources available to you as an undergraduate to help you prepare!